Hi Math is Everywhere readers,
Today, we’re joined by amazing author, Alison Hughes. This year, I read my first Alison Hughes book, The Silence Slips In, and was absolutely blown away. I’m so excited to be talking with Alison today about some of her wonderful picture books. If you want to win a copy of The Silence Slips In, make sure to stay tuned until the end of this interview.
Alison has published 16 books for children and young adults. She won the Writers’ Union of Canada Writing for Children award, was a Junior Library Guild selection, and has been nominated for many awards including Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Alberta Literary Awards and Ontario’s Silver Birch. Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, Korean and Turkish.
Kaitlyn: Alison, thanks so much for joining me today on the Math is Everywhere blog.
Alison: Thanks so much for inviting me, Kaitlyn!
Kaitlyn: You have so many amazing books that have really important topics, from fears to uniqueness to impacts one act can have, how do you come up with ideas for your books?
Alison: I’m usually inspired by little things, and gradually, hopefully seamlessly, they expand to hint at bigger things. So, for example, picking up a piece of litter on a bike ride made me think of all the creatures that piece of litter could have affected, and how small actions can make a big difference to an entire ecosystem. The Silence Slips In was inspired by a psychological study I read where university students chose to self-administer electric shocks rather than be alone with their thoughts in silence. This appalled me, so I wanted to reclaim the silence as a calm, comforting friend who’s there when you need them. I think one of the most important things to do as a writer is to be aware of the small things, and then start making connections. And obviously, for children’s literature, to make them accessible to kids.
Kaitlyn: Wow, that is a very sad study and such a beautiful response you had to it. How do you take such important topics and make them child friendly?
Alison: Children deal with important topics every day, so not many issues are completely new to them. What’s new is the perspective, the way of thinking about something they may have already felt or experienced. It helps to take the big topics and parcel them out into child-sized pieces. It also helps to be around kids, and to listen to them. My own children, my nieces and nephews, the children I meet in school visits — all of them have reminded me of how a child sees the world, the struggles they face, the things they find funny. Particularly for picture books, I also try to remember that reading often happens with a caregiver or in a classroom. The book ideally stimulates discussion; it shouldn’t try to be the very last word.
Kaitlyn: What wonderful insight, Alison. I’m definitely going to keep all these idea in mind when I write. Beyond making your writing accessible to kids, you also have this magical way of making every page sound poetic. In fact, in Quill & Quire’s starred reviewof Spare Dog Parts, they said, “The text is sparse but affecting and verges on poetic at times.” How do you react when people tell you how beautiful your writing is?
Alison: That’s so kind of you, Kaitlyn. I feel very grateful and humbled by that kind of praise. I love poetry, and picture books are an ideal opportunity to hone poetic language, because with such sparse wording, each word should evoke something more than itself. Children themselves use unconscious poetry all the time. In the grocery store I heard a little girl tell her mom that “the bananas are all cuddled up in a family!” Total poetry.
Kaitlyn: Awe, that’s so sweet and definitely poetry! In The Silence Slips In, the texture of the art and the personification of Silence are just perfect. Did you envision the art this way?
Alison: I totally agree! To be honest, I had no idea how an illustrator would interpret that story. I knew I wanted the book to feel calm and contemplative, but honestly, painting silence seemed a very tall order. But Ninon Pelletier did such an incredible job with the story, and made the images so lyrical and serene and beautiful, that when I saw the illustrations I thought “oh, yes, that’s exactly what I didn’t know I’d been hoping for!”
Kaitlyn: That’s amazing! Just what every writer hopes for! I’m so happy that you were connected with the best illustrator for your story. Another great partnership you had was in The Creepy Crawly Thought, where you got the chance to work with your sister to help kids face their fears. Did you and your sister talk about your fears as a kid when you were working on it, if so, can you share them with us?
Alison: Absolutely! The whole point of the book is to talk about fears, to drag them into the light, and to assert control. My sister, Jennifer Rabby, and I had a wonderful time collaborating on that book (I wrote, she illustrated), and we’re well-versed in each other’s fears. I was always disaster-oriented for some reason, and no disaster was too remote. Wildfire, avalanche, earthquake, tornado, tsunami (we lived about 750 miles from an ocean), I panicked about them all, and made elaborate survival plans. Jen was similarly unrealistic in her one, overwhelming fear that King Kong actually lived under her bed. But that’s the thing about fears, right? An absence of logic doesn’t make them any less scary.
Kaitlyn: You ladies are creative even in your fears; true creatives at heart. Can you give new writers some advice on how to achieve what you do with text, writing sparsely but poetically in prose?
Alison: I think what I’ve learned is to always be mindful that the illustrations will also tell the story, so the words don’t need to say everything. You can be selective. There is a tendency when you’re first starting out (and I did this, too), to feel you have to explain and describe everything. Trust yourself as a writer, trust the eventual illustrator, and trust the reader. Don’t waste precious words on description that will be shown in illustration. Really focus on the feeling you want the book to achieve, show how the story plays out, and craft interesting, evocative, expansive ways of using words. In The Silence Slips In, I evaluated every word with a view to making the book soothing and meditative, so for example, instead of saying the Silence “helps you finally fall asleep,” I settled on how it “gently, softly launches all the boats of your dreams.” A few more words, but infinitely better, because it implies a dreamlike state, a whole world after you fall asleep.
Kaitlyn: Yes! What an absolutely beautiful way to word that line. And thank you for sharing that even a phenomenal writer like you had to learn how to select words. That gives us all hope that we can be successful too someday if we keep working and learning. What do you enjoy most about your writing career?
Alison: Oh, it’s hard to pick. I love hearing from readers that the book really meant something to them. I’m always humbled at how deeply people feel about the stories they read, and how sometimes you’ve unwittingly helped them figure something out, given them solace, made them laugh or made them feel less alone. I particularly love the fact that picture books contribute to closeness and connection between kids and parents/caregivers. I also love school visits, because you can’t bottle that kind of fun and energy!
Kaitlyn: Your books have definitely done this for me. Thank you for creating such beautiful books. Speaking of books, what’s next for you?
Alison: A paperback copy of my picture book What Matters will be released in the spring (and that book was just translated into Turkish!), and I’ve got another picture book out with Scholastic in 2021. In the meantime, I’m writing an exciting middle grade and finding homes for a couple more completed projects.
Thanks so much for inviting me to spend some time with you and your lovely kidlit community, Kaitlyn! Happy writing, everyone!
Kaitlyn: I can’t wait to check those out! My aunt Susie went to Turkey when we were young, and when she came back, she gave us these beautiful coins and taught us how to count to ten; it’s such a lovely language. Congrats for the translation, and all your other upcoming adventures! Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Kaitlyn’s Review of The Silence Slips In
The Silence Slips In is a picture that absolutely wowed me. I read it again and again with my daughter and even on my own. The lyrical words flow beautifully with the soft stunning art. As a person who has lived a life filled with anxiety and just recently discovered how to calm herself using mindfulness and mediation, this book was even more powerful to me, and something that I was extra excited to share with my daughter, who loves it too. I believe this book should be in the hands of every child, helping them see the importance of silence and relaxation. –Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez
To find out more about Alison, her phenomenal books, and get teacher resources, check out her website.
Connect with Alison Hughes on Twitter
And make sure to get your hands on her phenomenal books and review them!
Now for the GIVEAWAY information.
To enter, comment on this blog post.
For extra entries, request your library carry one or more of her books and tell us which you requested in the comments (one extra entry for each book your request).
For another entry, retweet the this tweet on my Twitter.
Thank you all for reading; I hope you enjoy discovering Alison Hughes books as much as I have, and I hope if you’re a writer, you got some great insight from Alison today!